On environment and creativity
7 min read

On environment and creativity

On environment and creativity

You may not have heard of Howard Luck Gossage, and that's a shame. He was an ad-man from the 50s nicknamed the Socrates of San-Francisco, prominent in his time yet not long after his death his name somehow faded from collective memory.

"Gossage is the Velvet Underground to Ogilvy’s Beatles and Bernbach’s Stones. Never a household name but, to the cognoscenti, a lot more inspirational and influential." - Ogilvy Chariman Rory Sutherland

Here's one of his ads:

‌‌Aside from his unique style, two things caught my attention about him.

First, he believed in doing good. He once said, "changing the world is the only work for a fit man," (it was the 50s...) and to back up his words he kick-started the global environmental movement by coming up with the idea for a nationwide environmental organisation and their now household name, Friends of the Earth.

The second was his generalist approach. A consultancy he set up, Generalists Inc., approached each challenge with “no preconceived idea of what the solution might be." That enabled his work to stand out, to be weird, and be worth talking about.

Sometimes you see creativity produced by people that sits within a solar system. Different, but more or less orbiting the same sun. Perhaps it uses the same framework of sound, the same palettes, the same lighting. You see things that connect one piece of work to the next. You know a Tarantino film when you see one, for example.

Other times however you witness creativity seemingly being born from thousands of distant galaxies. From one idea to the next, it's difficult to see how one mind can create so many different things. Nicholas Cage is the human embodiment of this (for good and bad)... And so was Gossage's creative brain.

So, today I want to mull on what it means to approach every new project anew, something undoubtedly easy to say but incredibly difficult to do. We humans love shortcuts, we love templates, we love quick fixes. We're busy and just want to get things done. These are not good traits that enable creativity to flourish.

Where then might creativity begin to flourish? Your environment. Or, to borrow a typical line from Gossage, it's the ninety non-zebras.

II

Before we tuck in, let's quickly touch upon what we mean by 'being creative'. I'm not setting the standards too high for us mortals. For ordinary people like you and me, it's most likely to be a new idea that isn't crap. That's basically it. It sounds straightforward enough, but having an idea that you would be willing to share with others in the hope that they'll like it isn't easy. Of course, you can also be creative in private, but it's difficult to know if your sketch is a work of art without the eyes of others scrutinising it.

I think one of my biggest strengths throughout my career hasn't been that I'm wildly creative or different, I simply have an extremely robust crap detector. I can see a photo or a graphic and instantly see (sense?) whether it's crap. A bit like Karl Pilkington's Bullshit Man I suppose.

Hemingway said a similar thing about writers needing a built-in crap detector. Knowing what's bad helps you get to what's good, much like it's easier to avoid being stupid than seeking genius in yourself.

So the creativity I'm speaking to here isn't a kind of genius and special thing reserved for the 0.1%. It is, in fact, a very practical kind of creativity. With this in mind, how can we become aware of what's crap and what isn't? By seeing outside the bowl in which we live.

III

"We don't know who discovered water, but we're pretty sure it wasn't a fish." - Howard Gossage, among others.

Gossage was interested in how our invisible environments impact our understanding of the world. Only when we step outside our bubble do we begin to see. For a fish, going ashore might help it understand the sea it is seeing from the outside for the first time. But it'd have little understanding of the beach on which it sits, which itself sits within a village, which sits in a country, and so forth. We can never actually catch up with all those layers, but it's good to be mindful that they exists and that they control our perceptions.

Awareness can come through the environment changing or ourselves changing. Take a minute to think about how you breathe. Focus on how your chest moves, and how the air leaves your nose or mouth. Are they regular breaths? Are they deep or shallow? By now, I'm sure you're suddenly aware of your breathing, perhaps finding it a bit strange and awkward. Something so familiar suddenly seems external to yourself. Meanwhile, you didn't think about your left foot at all, you didn't even feel it, did you? But now you do. Awareness is a strange thing.

Now, gaining some awareness of your environment will not alone turn you into a creative genius, but it's the first step.

"The ability to behold takes several forms. The first is largely acquired through experience. It's being able to tell the difference between one thing and another. It is seeing a hundred horses run by and saying, 'Hey, that one there is a zebra!'"‌‌ - Howard Gossage

Conservatives might ask why the zebra is there. Pragmatic types might ask what they can do with a zebra. The imaginative types might ask what they will do with the 99 horses.‌‌

So you need the experience first to see. But at the same time, not so much experience that you are weighed down by all the habits, rules, and preconceptions around you.

Gossage uses the example of how well talented immigrants can do in a remarkably short space of time in a new country, thanks to them being, in his words, 'extra-environmentalists'. They see the world differently and, moving in a strange new environment, there are fewer voices both around them and in their heads saying 'you can't do that'. Within the environment of, say, an office, there are often too many voices saying 'you can't do that' or 'we tried before it didn't work'. Where do many of these voices come from? Specialists.

IV‌‌

Being a specialist sounds good. It can feel good. It means you're an expert, a master of your field. But that can also be a problem because specialists are, by their nature, focused on one part of a big machine. Getting them to play a new tune together is a very difficult task indeed.‌‌

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan explained that specialism emerged in the machine age. In machines, A leads to B which triggers C and then D. In programming, it's known as an 'If this then that' statement. And if you think about it, many jobs now are simply about inserting people into a mechanical or electronic assembly line. Sometimes my job is literally taking an electronic mail, typing something, and sending it along for someone else to pick up.‌‌

Is this a problem? Maybe, maybe not, but as an aside you might find it interesting to know that the word 'boredom' came about at the start of the industrial revolution. People sitting in the first ever assembly lines quickly found a word to describe how they felt about this modern, new way of working.‌‌

This isn't to say we don't need specialists, it's just that they aren't very good at understanding what's going on outside of their area of specialisation. This is why you need a generalist comprehension of processes and of what's going on around you.‌‌

Those who read literature, watch movies outside the mainstream, and read around seemingly unrelated subjects, are often the ones able to bring new insights to a field. Those generalists are more likely to be artists or at least be more artful. These people can one day bring in an idea that gets people excited and for a moment brings them out of the conveyor belt of mass production. Sadly, slowly and then suddenly, these people can be then swallowed into the machine, lauded for their work and promoted with the title of specialist, allowing the invisible environment to cocoon them. And if they refuse? Well, then they must be weirdos and must be shunned.‌‌

Our environment is what we touch, the things we read and watch, the places we go, and the people we talk with that shape what we see of the world. In the digital age, it's a dastardly challenge to resist the bubbles that have been algorithmically honed to capture us. But, fight we must.‌‌ To keep pushing is to keep learning and growing. It's uncomfortable at times and it might not always sit well with those around us, but push on we must.

Over the last 12 months, I've spoken about reading a poem a day, reading more literature and less non-fiction, doing a sketching course, and using analogue cameras, as ways to just bring myself out of the quotidian. These things haven't, I'm sorry to report, turned me into someone like Howard Gossage. But they have allowed me to see windows into different environments, giving me new ideas and inspiring me to try new things inside and outside of work. Small things, without a doubt, and hardly earth-shattering, but the creation of something nonetheless. And that dear reader is what counts.

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